Tabu unfurls in a seemingly straightforward manner but in hindsight makes for a difficult task to delineate, where to begin with this deceptively broad film? The story begins in Lisbon 2008 with a drama revolving around an elderly lady named Aurora, her black maid Santa, and neighbour Pilar. Aurora's behaviour becomes increasingly distressing before she is hospitalised and in her final hours asks Pilar to track down a man she used to know by the name of Ventura. Until this point the film had built these three characters before abandoning them for the elderly Ventura who then takes centre stage to narrate his and Aurora's past. It's in this telling of the tragic demise of Aurora and Ventura's relationship that the film's premise and experimental pushing becomes apparent, with this 60s set story being told completely through narration while the onscreen action remains silent.
Shot in the old academy aspect ratio of 1:37:1 and entirely black and white, director Miguel Gomes tells his story as a silent feature with the same technical specifications as filmmakers from the turn of the 20th century, though the film does include sound from non-diagetic sources such as the jungle of Tabu where the story takes place. All this sounds rather gimmicky but Gomes is coming from a different place entirely from, let's say, The Artist; Tabu does more than reference cinema of the past, here he applies it to the very heart of human experiences. If we think of how we absorb the world around us and thus how we memorise it, we process through many fragmented images and never a fluid flow of the same. Our eyes seldom hold for more than two seconds, we blink, we move, all adding to a whole which is remarkably similar to how cinema works. Gomes' film links human memories with the cinematic medium, the silent medium adding an overwhelming edge of nostalgia to the proceedings.
That we hear Ventura's recounting of events but never the characters' voices speaks of a film that is challenging the notion of memory, the scenes are played out before us but our 'trusting' commentator provides the context. Of course this aspect provokes extra thought into the authenticity of affairs, but the agonising love letters between Aurora and Ventura that are dictated with the same earnestness can only be read as genuine.
Gomes' film is remarkable in its inducing power, largely because of the amount of elements omitted, elements that would normally be the make-or-break tool for most films. Music is used very sporadically and actions such as gunshots fired towards game or human targets during the story aren't shown, we're shown the consequences of actions never the actions themselves. These are minor details when compared to the larger more resistant nature of the film's narrative in that it refuses to turn back on itself. When a new chapter starts, past character are never reintroduced or harked back to for emotional reflection. This wholly progressive drive of Tabu is perhaps explained through a line from one of the love letters that declares, "You may run as far as you like for as long as you like but you will not escape your heart". Yes the film looks back but in its propelled and detached sentiment to its first half Tabu is certainly failing on purpose to move forward while the past beckons it back.
Each character of Pilar, Santa, and Aurora live in isolation and loneliness despite their proximity to one another; Santa lives with her employer in the house she maintains while Pilar is but a few feet away from Aurora's front door. The first half that tells of this three way relationship is in itself a masterful depiction of loneliness to the second half's portrayal of love, loss, and memory. There's also the feeling that though Aurora's story is told here, the focus could have been shifted to any of the other characters for a story worth being told, after all, everyone has one to tell. Even those closest to Aurora didn't know of hers, the story that was the key to so many of her flaws and downfalls. On this sad note the film proposes how hidden people can be in plain sight, how anonymous we can be to those closest to us, and how it's tragic part of the human condition that we can never fully know anyone.
Tabu washes over you calmly before revealing itself in the coming hours and days afterwards, a rewarding emotional labyrinth and a stunning example of classical filmmaking. Classical, not in the sense of the past cinematic techniques utilised but in the harmonious marriage of content and style.